Kids as young as 13 sleeping rough highlights housing shortage

Among the tombstones in Auckland's Pigeon Park is where 15-year-old Franki spent his first night on the streets.

"I was pretty scared," the now 19-year-old recalls of those first few nights he spent alone.

His dad had just died. Grappling with grief and without the person who’d defined where home was he turned to the streets.

“Because I didn’t have my dad. I didn’t know where to call home. The only place I could call home was the streets.”

Some older streeties befriended him, gave him advice and kept him company. “They packed up my stuff and came to keep me company because I was still young.”

He says over the years he was given emergency accommodation. But it didn’t always feel safe, living in places with older adults, some of whom had more complex needs.

“The worst one was some gang members came over to one of the motels I used to stay at and kicked the door down and started smashing me.”

Compared to that, the streets felt safer. And so his cycle of rough sleeping continued for four years - until last year’s Delta lockdown.

The aspiring security guard now lives in a hostel designed specifically for youth.

“It’s pretty good, like I got my own space. I have my own house, and if anyone comes in I can just tell them to get out if I want to. It’s my kingdom,” he says.

Lifewise youth worker Aaron Hendry has known Franki for years. He’d hoped to get a roof over the teen’s head years ago. But he says with limited youth accommodation available, there wasn’t always a room available by the time he’d track Franki down.

“One of the major barriers is the lack of supply of specific housing for young people…we often have young people crying out for help and we just don’t have the housing.”

Lockdown surge

He says the number of youth on the street has surged since the start of the Delta lockdown.

“During lockdown we saw a whole wave of young people that had never experienced [homelessness before] that ended up experiencing homelessness due to the added pressure and stress in our communities, for some that extra stress meant home wasn’t the best place to be.”

Data from the social agency shows that from August to December last year 145 people contacted the service for help. But less than half were housed.

Those they can’t help often end up rough sleeping, couch surfing, moving from place to place or living in unsuitable emergency accommodation.

The latest Ministry of Social Development figures shows that of those living in its emergency accommodation 261 were under the age of 20.

And Hendry says, those on the streets are getting younger and younger.

“We saw 13 and 14 year olds … and our young people tell us that they often began their journeys sleeping on the streets from as young as 9.”

It's a journey Franki says he knows too well.

“Young kids, younger than me [on the streets] it breaks my heart. Because like, I know how they feel.

“I wouldn’t want to go back, I just want to move on to my future and focus on getting a job.”